' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Visions of Eight (1973)

Friday, July 31, 2020

Friday's Old Fashioned: Visions of Eight (1973)

Seen through the rearview mirror, Olympic Games tend to be distilled down to one athlete or event. The Montreal Games of 1976 shrink to just Nadia Comăneci’s perfect 10; the Berlin Games of 1936 are remembered solely through the prism of Jesse Owens sticking it to der Führer. The 1972 Munich Olympics, meanwhile, despite featuring Mark Spitz’s 7 Gold Medals, the controversial U.S./U.S.S.R. basketball game and Prefontaine’s epic 5,000 defeat to Finland’s Lasse Virén is known for the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes. How on earth could it be known for anything else? What else matters in comparison? Nothing, of course, but the Olympics went on, as they should have, since they were, in the vociferous words of Prefontaine, per teammate Kenny Moore’s telling, “our games!” They were. And so even as the official 1972 Olympics documentary, “Visions of Eight” (1973), solemnly acknowledges the massacre, it begins from the beginning, showing athletes of all colors and countries and creeds gathering, immediately establishing that these are their games. 

The film opens with a statement literally splayed across the screen: “Sunflowers are familiar to millions, yet no one ever saw them the way Vincent Van Gogh did. So with the Olympics.” That is why rather than following the XX Olympiad from a single director’s perspective, “Visions of Eight” employs an octet of auteurs from different countries, each seeing a chosen event from a unique angle. Arthur Penn recounts the Men’s Pole Vault competition, not succinctly or even clearly, quite frankly, but lyrically, segueing to it sans music, sans crowd noise, just the vaulters and their air space. And if TV telecasts unfairly reduce this event’s majesty by recounting it from one camera angle over and over, Penn prefers oblique angles rendering the vaulters as truly flying or truly falling. For the Men’s 100-meter final, Kon Ichikawa employs 34 cameras and 20,000 feet of film to capture an astonishing array of slow-motion shots transforming the human condition into one of pure physical agony. 

These films, like the others, jettison backstory and even, mostly, national identity, evoking the stated ideal of the Olympics being contests between individuals and teams, not countries. If that, as an avowed believer in the abolition of medal counts, pleases me, it can sometimes cause the documentary to suffer, such as in Michael Pfleghar’s passage, The Women. His intention might be noble, to honor what was, at the time, the most women competitors in the history of the games, but minus context it can veer too far into Male Gaze territory. The passage, though, in which he shows the entirety of Soviet gymnast Ludmilla Tourischeva’s uneven bars routine works. With no commentary, with no score in the corner of the screen, we are simply left to revel in the artistry.

Claude LeLouch, who made “13 Days in France” about the 1968 Grenoble Winter Olympics, my favorite Olympics doc, finds melancholy poetry in the losers. The chapter begins with a boxer who will not leave the ring after being beaten, at once ridiculous and poignant; Citius Altius Querulous. And the chapter closes with an injured wrestler who futilely goes on, nobly helped off the mat by his vanquisher. Best, though, is in-between, a montage of javelin throwers not living up to their competitive expectations. LeLouch never shows the outcome of these throws, keeping his camera fixed to the face, where the truth lies, a sort of remix of the sports blooper as comically moving poetry. (See below.)

That kind of unexpected comicality is also present in Milos Forman’s piece on the Decathlon. If that ten-part track and field event colloquially crowns the World’s Greatest Athlete, Forman imagines it as something else entirely, a stumble to exhaustion, for competitors and the judges alike, one of whom is shown falling asleep deep into the 2-day affair. And by scoring it to Bavarian music while occasionally cutting away to German beer halls, it suggests “Beerfest” (2006) by light of the Olympic flame. John Schlesinger’s ode to the marathon, seen through the eyes of the British runner Ron Hill, is not quite as humorous though still a more unconventional approach, focusing on fatigued and injured athletes and and rendering the medical vans and sweep buses and looming helicopters as much the point as the race, an entire carnival less about winning than survival.

“Visions of Eight” ends with Hill at home, sitting on his stoop and lacing his shoes, about to go for a run. It flashed me back to the second chapter, The Strongest, focused on weightlifting, of which the director, Mai Zetterling, confesses in voiceover she knows next to nothing. Indeed, her passage is the most artfully rendered, inserting computerized readouts of the lifters weight and height right before sudden, jarring images of slabs of beef being prepared, visually evoking the lifters’ fuel. And rather than obsessing over how much they lift, Zetterling is more taken with how they lift it, lingering over mid-lift facial expressions and accompanying screams, the pre-lift routines, including one competitor who prowls the floor, psyching himself up, before just erupting into his lift. 

This distinct approach ends with the competition literally ending, the lifting platform being torn down and put away. Just like that, the games are over.

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